Kate Maguire of Berkshire Theatre Group
Midsummer Report on the Merger
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 30, 2011
Charles Giuliano It is almost August. This is the first season of a merger between Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Colonial Theatre. Can you give us a midterm report?
Kate Maguire When we came together last November we had two seasons to finish. BTF needed to finish Christmas Carol which it had planned for the Unicorn. The Colonial had programming which through March or April. So those seasons need to be brought to light and completed. At the same time I brought in Simon Shaw to plans the new season at the Colonial. In fact to plan through the end of this year. A lot of time was spent, November, December, January on how were we going to bring together these two organizations. What needs to be done from an administrative and technical point of view? Simon and I began to go to work on what’s the production schedule going to look like for BTF and what is Simon presenting at the Colonial. Fortunately, Simon and I really meshed and that relationship came together.
CG He was with the original Colonial staff.
KM Yes. I was on the original Colonial board. I don’t know if you knew that. This was when the planning for the Colonial was being done. This was about ten years ago when Hillary Clinton came. It was just a dream. That meant there would be State and Federal funding. I do remember sitting with Simon when he first came on and imagining could we do Christmas Carol at the Colonial?
CG What did it cost to build out the Colonial?
KM It was about $20 million. At the Mahaiwe there were tax credits given. So it’s a complicated system that the theatre was built on. For both the Mahaiwe and the Colonial. We got tax credits as well but I cannot begin to know and state all of the details. But we can get you that information if you need it.
Simon began to come to me with ideas for presenting.
CG This is in the past year?
KM Yes, we knew that we wanted to produce at the Colonial. We wanted to produce a show as opposed to bringing in a play. We can build the sets. We want our actors in them. I was still trying to figure out where the audience was. And what might work at the Colonial.
CG Tough question. Did you come up with any answers?
KM What was new to me was the music industry. What I quickly realized was that music reaches a younger population much more quickly than theatre. It is just immediate access to young people. So when I was thinking about the first production it seemed that it needed to be a musical. I was literally driving in the car and I said, ok, it’s going to be The Who’s Tommy. We’ve got Randy Harrison in our company and James Barry I’ve got this director who is from that generation. This guy’s who’s 58-years-old and totally addicted to The Who. What I did do first was to go to Eric (Hill) and said is Tommy going to be OK in that space? He said “Yeah it would be great in that space.” He pulled together his design team that was going to be able to work within the constraints of our budget.
CG Can you share the numbers with me?
KM The set was $11,000.
CG Wow. And it worked.
KM I know. We saved all that steel. You’ll see it again, and again, and again.
CG What was the budget?
KM For the whole show? I would have to go back and look. There were eleven Equity actors. There were apprentices and some Non Equity actors that were brought in. But as far as the acting company it was probably about the same budget as our production of Macbeth last season. You then add in musicians. It was more with the set. Our set budgets are less than that.
CG Can we get a ballpark figure?
KM I can get you that figure Charles. The production itself was in the $20,000 range when you add the costumes and special effects.
CG That sounds pretty damned cheap.
KM It wouldn’t have happened other than that we worked with designers we had worked with before and they get it. Also it has to be recognized that this is being built at the same time that six other shows are being built. And a new stage is being built at The Mount. I think that anyone who knows that the set was $11,000 is pretty astounded as you are.
CG Perhaps we just assumed that this is a $100,000 production.
KM No. I don’t have $100,000 to spend.
CG If you put that show on the Main Stage of BTF?
KM The set would have probably been around $8,000. As opposed to $11,000. Because we had to buy more steel.
CG So to do Tommy at The Colonial was just incrementally more expensive to do than at BTF.
KM We rented more lights. We had to get all the mikes because you have to amplify a rock musical. So that would have been the same. Costumes would have been the same. The set turned out to be more just because the space is bigger.
CG Let’s talk about the risk factor?
KM We’re moving from a 400 seat to an 800 seat house. A brand new arena. And, in the past I don’t know how used summer audiences have been to going to the Colonial. What do you think? I don’t think that people who just are here for the summer time have been used to going to the Colonial.
CG I think you can build that audience.
KM Oh yes. I look at the zip codes (for ticket sales) and you go North County, South County, the ten hot spots go from North to South County.
CG Let’s talk generically. Did you meet your goal for Tommy?
KM Yes, we met our goal for Tommy.
CG So you didn’t lose anything?
KM No. I think we gained a lot. So many people came to the Colonial who said they had never been there before. When you look around the house you never lose when the audiences are that young. The gallery was filled. It was where everyone went to dance. We had sponsorships to which we were giving tickets. We had our youth board. We were giving tickets to those kids to go up there. I watched every night from the gallery.
CG When I went on line to check ticket sales I would see an empty gallery.
KM As I said the gallery was where we sent all of our sponsored groups. There were people up there dancing all the time. Filled would be an exaggeration. The gallery was a good place to watch that show actually.
CG Do you have attendance figures? What percentage of the house, at 800 seats, did Tommy run?
KM Oh, between 65 and 70%.
CG Is that acceptable?
KM Oh yeah.
CG Of course a lot of this includes half price tickets and comped groups.
KM We met our goals.
CG Why didn’t you open Tommy during the Fourth of July weekend?
KM Why would be do a rock show against James Taylor?
CG Starting the week before there were 6,000 Wilco fans, in bad weather at Mass MoCA. That Saturday Tanglewood did well with Earth Wind and Fire. Coming into the fourth Mark Morris sold out Ozawa Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday. James Taylor and Friends were in Ozawa on Thursday and JT sold out Pops in the Shed on Friday. Garrison Keillor, as usual, did well in the Shed on Saturday and JT sold out the Shed (18,000 per) on Sunday and Monday. That’s a lot of people in the Berkshires looking for something else to do on other nights. They don’t want to be at Tanglewood every night. Barrington Stage sold out Guys and Dolls on the Fourth weekend as did WTF for Streetcar Named Desire. Tommy would have been a viable option in that mix.
KM Our past experience is that that weekend is tough.
CG Everyone did well that weekend.
KM What do you want me to say?
CG It’s a no brainer to start Tommy on the Fourth and run it for two weeks.
KM I think we did it right.
CG If you had it to do over you would do it the same?
KM I don’t have my staff here to get the show in. I may have a hundred people here during the season but seventy five of them are college students that are interning and apprenticing. They don’t get here until the school year ends. So how do I get that set in? The planning that goes into all this from the production standpoint is pretty intricate.
CG Larry Murray reported that on the Monday after Tommy closed on Sunday there were people calling the Colonial for tickets.
KM Yup. There were a few people who called for tickets. I run into people all the time who say why didn’t you keep it running. Then I run into a few people who say, I completely get it, it was an 800 seat house. It’s new. It’s different. You told people when it was going to be there. There were seats to be sold. I’ve always been let’s sell it out and then extend it if we sell out. We did not sell out 800 seats for each show. But we had great audiences.
CG Do you think it could have added a week?
KM No. But if we do a show next year we will add on. Because people get it now.
CG Two weeks?
CG Opening on the Fourth of July?
KM I’ll definitely be thinking of that Charles. Because people now know what it is. Oh, hello. There’s quality in their productions. I need to get there and I need to buy my ticket.
CG Maybe we can talk about this another time. But the Fourth launches the season and it’s a big sell from a marketing point of view. You opened with Moonchildren in the Unicorn. Not even a Main Stage production on such a key weekend.
KM Moonchildren did well. The seasons have been starting later.
CG What changes and trends do you see.
KM I see that the season is starting later ever year. The economy is having a massive impact in the way that people travel and come here. I respond prudently. With great excitement in each production. But prudent and conservative as most people would call me. On the one hand, and on the other, not conservative at all. Look at the expansion and what we just took on. Within that, my husband (Eric Hill) always says that I’m the sanest person in the room. Of course, coming from him… There are times when I say this is just too crazy.
CG What’s your comfort zone with all this? Do you sleep well at night?
KM I have been doing this for some time. I feel that I ensured the future of both organizations. I had been reaching out and trying to figure out how to collaborate more effectively. Are there systems to be merged? Are there staffs that can work together? Three years ago when there was a financial collapse we made cuts. Our budget was reduced from $2.5 million to $2.0. That was a lot to cut. I don’t think we can cut much more without biting into the bone. What I kept struggling with was how do we work with another organization? I had to respond to business leaders who were saying can’t any of you work together? You’re all coming to us for donations. Isn’t there something you can do? What’s going on? This is real. When I reached out to The Colonial it really was about timing.
It just so happened. I didn’t have anything to do with this. David Flemming had just stepped aside. I have told this story a gazillion times. I was already scheduled to meet with him. The board president said to me would you still like to meet with us? I walked in and he said “What were you going to meet with Dave about?” I said that I had wanted to see if there were ways in which we could collaborate. He said let’s talk seriously about collaborating.
CG You said you were saving both companies. In what way were you saving BTF?
KM How are we mapping out the future? How do I look at that Main Stage and create more opportunities for my artists. Are we really going to be able to raise money to create another year round theatre? Or renovate our building in this climate? I don’t think so. Is that necessary when there are all these theatres around, heated and beautiful. There are other venues. So, what do I do from an artistic standpoint to invigorate my company? It has been growing and deepening and strengthening. Where are the opportunities? What do I do about Christmas Carol? How do I create a future for our administrative staff many of whom have been with us for a decade? What are we going to do in this climate? It’s not as if we were in a major struggle because we weren’t. But how do you create a future when it will be safe to talk about expansion?
The opportunity with the Colonial was presented and I thought there is the future. The same for the Colonial. Neither organization is carrying enormous debt. What we are always struggling with is how to deal with our cash flow. That’s a piece that we’re looking at now. How do we make the cash flow work? How do we make it work with these two organizations? Thank goodness we’re not carrying massive debt.
CG In terms of what Simon is booking for the Colonial don’t you have to put up front money for those acts?
KM Most acts require that you put up a deposit. The contracts vary quite widely.
CG The Colonial did well with a rock act like Hot Tuna. But I imagine they were expensive as are the kinds of bookings that can attract substantial audiences. So the profit margin must be thin.
KM A profit is a profit. We are a not for profit so breaking even is the goal. If we break even we are covering. Yes, it is true that we have to send in a deposit, but most of the time we are not paying the artists until the day of the performance.
CG The problem with the Colonial and why it got into trouble was a house with a $20 million build out that was dark most of the time.
KM There’s a lot more going on now.
CG The difference seems to be incremental. There doesn’t seem to be that great a change since the merger. In terms of the number of nights when there is programming.
KM Compared to last year? It’s quite significant actually. There’s a lull right now. We are trying to find times to book things come September, October and November. We will continue to be booking.
CG Ideally how many nights a month?
KM Do we need to? I don’t know that’s what we are looking at right now. If we could perform every weekend that would be great.
KM I would like to have something every Friday and Saturday. Does that mean we are always presenting? Not necessarily. If we can do a rental, that’s fine too.
CG Based on your experience with Tommy what did you learn? How do you move forward?
KM I learned that the audience would like more of that. They say they would. This year we will produce Tommy, Wizard of Oz, and Christmas Carol. I would like to figure out a way to do a little more. Certainly my directors would all like to be working at the Colonial. They would all love a shot on that stage.
CG What about late winter and spring? Would it be possible to think that quarterly there will be an original production?
KM I think so or at least an extra one during the summer time. What will happen Charles is that we’ll get to the end of August. Then I will sit with a couple of my trustees. We will begin to look at numbers and trends. During October and November I have always taken those months to look seriously at the budget process. I also look at the staff carefully. But come the end of August I will be looking at the trends. What happened? Where did the people come from? This is all new to me. We are also experiencing some differences in the audiences at BTF. With more people from North County. Christmas Carol had a lot more people from North County this year than ever in the past. All of a sudden this year we had a significant jump. We had more people from North County for Christmas Carol this year than we had in the previous five years.
CG Can the Berkshires support four professional theatre companies?
KM I don’t know. You might find the answer to that if you look at all the dollars that need to be raised. How many contributors are there to keep us all going?